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VCU professor receives $1M grant to improve STEM learning in middle schools by focusing on ‘science talk’

A Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education professor has received a $1.03 million National Science Foundation grant to strengthen science learning in urban middle schools by focusing on the scientific discourse that occurs in the classroom.

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By Brian McNeill

A Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education professor has received a $1.03 million National Science Foundation grant to strengthen science learning in urban middle schools by focusing on the scientific discourse that occurs in the classroom.

“This project is based on the idea that science talk is at the heart of science learning,” said Christine Lee Bae, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Foundations of Education. “Specifically, the project aims to support science talk that productively builds upon and integrates diverse students’ knowledge and experiences, that in turn will promote equitable access to engagement, motivation and learning in science.”

The five-year Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant, “Building on diverse students’ funds of knowledge to promote scientific discourse and strengthen connections to science learning in urban classrooms,” will take place at approximately 15 local middle schools and will employ a mixed-methods approach with a sample of approximately 18 teachers and 450 students.

Christine Lee Bae, Ph.D.
Christine Lee Bae, Ph.D.

“The study will promote ‘authentic scientific discourse’ as a critical feature of students’ participation in science practices,” according to the abstract. “In the context of this work, scientific discourse will refer to the spoken and written words, and gestures of students and teachers as they interact in science classrooms. This, in turn, would promote students’ science learning at higher levels defined in the Next Generation Science Standards.”

Middle school is a pivotal stage in students’ academic development, as the curriculum becomes more differentiated by subject and students begin to make decisions about their future line of study and careers. This project, Bae said, proposes that building on students’ knowledge creates equitable access to participation in authentic scientific discourse.

“Integrating students’ knowledge and experiences in science discussions will strengthen their cognitive, motivational and social connections to science learning,” she said.

The project’s focus on creating opportunities for equitable and authentic scientific discourse in urban classrooms, as well as understanding the specific ways in which diverse students’ knowledge can be productively built upon to promote science learning, contributes to the broader mission of providing equitable access to high-quality science education that supports all students in becoming scientifically literate — a critical imperative for increasing diversity in STEM fields and breaking the cycle of underrepresented students losing interest and opting out of STEM pathways, Bae said.

The project will take place from 2019 to 2024, over three phases.

The study’s first phase will focus on understanding the learning context to identify methods to promote authentic scientific discourse that relates to content and practices in the science curriculum.

The second will involve working with teams of middle school science teachers in lesson study to incorporate scientific discourse in their classrooms. Science kits will be provided to create opportunities for students to engage in authentic scientific discourse as they actively explore science phenomena, such as the creation of landforms from rivers, different densities of liquids, acceleration of objects, and the changing phases of matter. How to support opportunities for science talk, such as sharing observations and data from different stations, and supporting claims in scientific arguments using evidence during these activities, will be examined. In addition, the effects of scientific discourse opportunities on students’ engagement, motivation and learning will be examined.

The third phase will focus on disseminating findings through national and local organizations, such as the Metropolitan Education Research Consortium, which connects the VCU School of Education with seven local school divisions to plan and conduct research that addresses school and community needs. The findings also will be shared in manuscripts in journals and national academic presentations.

The study will aim to answer three research questions: What funds of knowledge — culturally-based resources, knowledge, and experiences of minority students — do students bring to bear, and how can these be productively integrated to support participation in authentic scientific discourse? What are the ways in which students connect cognitively, motivationally and socially to science learning when participating in authentic scientific discourse within urban classrooms? And what progress do students make in key aspects of scientific discourse and their science learning?

The grant was awarded through the NSF’s Discovery Research PreK-12 (or DRK-12) program, which seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics by preK-12 students and teachers, through research and development of innovative resources, models and tools. Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts that provide theoretical and empirical justification for proposed projects.

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PHOTOS: University of Richmond opens new integrated “Well-Being Center” on campus

This month, UR opened its Well-Being Center, which is designed to be a collaborative, high-impact environment to support student learning and well-being. It houses the Student Health Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, as well as health promotion and nutrition services.

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Providing college students with the skills and experiences they need to succeed is only one part of an education. The University of Richmond also is committed to enabling students to develop a holistic approach to well-being that will not only serve them while they are on campus, but throughout life.

This month, UR opened its Well-Being Center, which is designed to be a collaborative, high-impact environment to support student learning and well-being. It houses the Student Health Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, as well as health promotion and nutrition services. Locating these critical student services in a single location enhances the university’s ability to provide integrated care and support for students.

“We’ve eliminated the barriers for students seeking help,” said Tom Roberts, associate vice president of health and well-being.

Research shows that students often neglect three areas: nutrition, mindfulness, and sleep. The Well-Being Center offers solutions to all three.

The new building includes features to encourage students to visit the facility not only when they need care, but also when they want to be proactive about their health. The Center offers a meditation garden, labyrinth, salt spa, and rest stop with massage chairs and sleep pods. The Organic Krush Café offers health food options and a demonstration kitchen will help students understand how to prepare nutritious dishes. Well-being classes also will be offered.

“Some of these things sound like such luxuries, but they are really necessities,” said Roberts. “I hope students come in here and find something they need and that can help them.”

The Center will be open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Plans for the $20 million building kicked off in April 2018 with the announcement of a lead gift from the Walrath Family Foundation, a philanthropic foundation established by alumni Michael and Michelle Walrath.

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University of Richmond begins spring semester with students back on campus, health and safety policies in place

Many policies in place on campus will mirror those implemented during the fall semester. Those prevention strategies include deep cleaning, reconfigured learning spaces, prevalence testing, and face covering and physical distancing requirements for faculty, staff, and students.

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The University of Richmond has resumed in-person instruction and the residential educational experience for the spring 2021 semester as of yesterday, Tuesday, January 19th, 2021.

Many policies in place on campus will mirror those implemented during the fall semester. Those prevention strategies include deep cleaning, reconfigured learning spaces, prevalence testing, and face covering and physical distancing requirements for faculty, staff, and students. Specific plans for the spring semester include:

“The University continues to monitor very closely pandemic developments, and we are prepared to modify our approach to instruction if conditions warrant,” said Jeff Legro, executive vice president and provost. “At this time, we believe we can safely and responsibly continue with our plans for an in-person spring semester, and our community is committed to adhering to our guidelines to make that possible.”

Testing and Screening Protocols

All students were tested for COVID-19 on campus prior to move-in or taking in-person classes. Students were asked to self-quarantine for 10 days prior to returning to campus by staying at home to the fullest extent possible and following additional health and safety protocols. All members of the University community must monitor their health daily. Faculty and staff are also being provided options for COVID-19 testing. UR will also continue COVID-19 prevalence testing, which involves testing a randomly selected group of asymptomatic people to assess the incidence of COVID-19 on campus. 

Move-In

In order to promote physical distancing and ensure adherence to health and safety protocols, student move-in is being phased over a period of 17 days and is expected to conclude Sunday, Jan. 24. Students moving in during this final week are starting their classes remotely and will begin in-person classes following their arrival to campus.

Red Stage Opening and Enhanced Rules

As in the fall, the University of Richmond will open in the Red Stage of its Physical Distancing Framework. During the move-in period, additional enhanced Red Stage rules were implemented to promote a successful and safe start to the semester. These policies provide guidance for students awaiting COVID-19 test results, limit visitors in student residences, and require residential students to remain on campus.  

Calendar and Class Information

The first day of classes is Jan. 19, and classes will conclude April 23. Finals will take place April 28 through May 6. There will be no spring break; however, UR has added two mid-week break days in Feburary and April. As was the case this fall, many courses will be offered in-person while some will be offered fully online or use a combination of approaches. In-person classes will continue to be offered in classrooms modified to support active learning while adhering to physical distancing and related safety protocols. Students could also choose to complete the semester fully online.

Dashboard Data

The University of Richmond COVID-19 Dashboard, which is updated at least weekly, remains a source of information to provide updates on COVID-19 data specifically related to the campus community.

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U of R announces socially distant service opportunities and virtual events in honor of MLK Day

Virtual events, such as luncheons and meditation sessions, are slated to take place on Zoom throughout the week in order to bring the campus community together to pause, reflect, and discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King and what it means to heal.

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The University of Richmond has announced it will be closed Monday, January 18th to allow the campus community to engage in physically-distanced service activities celebrating MLK Day.

Historically, UR celebrates the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through a day filled with service opportunities completed alongside the greater Richmond community. Due to COVID-19, this year’s MLK Day events will foster opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to volunteer virtually by working on project kits developed by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. The kits entail projects such as transcribing documents from the Library of Virginia; creating birthday cards for Celebrate! RVA; making toys for the ASPCA; writing letters to elected officials; and more.

The community will also have the opportunity to use the Book Arts Studio’s printing press on MLK Day, to create book art and journals that align with this year’s theme, “The Revolution Then And Now: A Time of Healing.”

Virtual events, such as luncheons and meditation sessions, are slated to take place on Zoom throughout the week in order to bring the campus community together to pause, reflect, and discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King and what it means to heal.

“In the wake of two pandemics — COVID-19 and social injustice — we’re encouraging our community to reflect on what it will mean to heal as we look to the future and explore the ways that we can better impact the lives of those in our community and beyond who experience social injustices and are fighting their own individual revolution,” said Morgan Russell, associate director of multicultural affairs and event organizer.

Full details about UR’s MLK Day celebration are available at richmond.edu/mlk.

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