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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.

RVAHub Staff

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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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Henrico Schools release five possible options under consideration for fall return

Henrico County Public Schools will provide all students with customizable learning pathways for the summer and is considering five options for a return to school for the 2020-21 school year. Here’s what they could look like.

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Henrico County Public Schools will provide all students with customizable learning pathways for the summer and is considering five options for a return to school for the 2020-21 school year.

In an attempt to buttress summer learning and mitigate the effects of instructional time lost to the closure for coronavirus, all of the school division’s students will have access to prescribed learning pathways for the summer months. In some cases, students’ plans will be optional, and in others, will be required. The avenues will include both asynchronous learning (online learning that happens on students’ schedules) and synchronous learning (online education that happens in real-time, delivered by a teacher at a specific time).

The five options for the 2020-21 school year include a full return to school campuses for all students, an all-online option, and three options that would combine the two. All options that involve returning to school facilities would include new, possibly unprecedented, safety protocols for successfully reopening public schools.

“This summer and fall will be about flexibility, creativity, and above all, safety,” said Amy Cashwell, HCPS superintendent. “We’re going to keep working hard to find innovative ways to support all our students as they continue learning this summer, and to prepare for a safe return to school in the fall, no matter what that may look like.”

Summer student pathways

Summer learning pathways are part of HCPS’ “Henrico Edflix” learning plan and will enable all students to build skills directly related to the grade-level content they will encounter during the 2020-21 school year. Some of the pathways are designed for students who may have gaps in learning, while others are designed for review, enrichment and acceleration. There are also several exceptional education options under consideration for students with disabilities. The plan will include students who, in other years, might have taken part in HCPS’ Summer Academy, accelerated learning or extended-school-year programs. For details about the pathways, go to HCPS’ On-Demand Learning webpage athttps://henricoschools.us/covid19/ondemandlearning/.

Fall options for 2020-21 school year

Henrico County Public Schools is considering five possible formats for 2020-21 school attendance, depending on factors related to the pandemic. New safety measures would be adopted for on-campus options, and under all options, the pace of learning would be adjusted to include content students may have missed in the spring. The five options under consideration are:

  • Option A: On-campus learning. All students would be back on campus, with new, possibly unprecedented, safety measures in place.
  • Option B: Remote learning that is structured and enhanced. All students would participate in required daily remote learning that includes graded schoolwork. While HCPS’ March closure necessitated emergency distance-learning measures, this option would more closely resemble the traditional expectations of a typical school day.
  • Option C: Interrupted on-campus learning. All students would be back on campus for several weeks or months at a time, which could be interrupted by periods of structured remote learning in response to health concerns that may arise.
  • Option D: Hybrid learning. One portion of the student body would attend classes on campus for a period of time, while another portion would learn remotely. The two groups might switch after a number of months, or alternate days on campus to build a blended learning environment. Having fewer students on campus would make it easier to implement distancing guidelines.
  • Option E: Parallel learning. Part of the student body would attend all classes on campus while another group would learn remotely for the entire school year because of choice or necessity. This option would not require students to alternate days, unless a student needed to shift from one track to the other.

Each of the five options would require extensive coordination and planning by HCPS staff members. At this time a final plan has not been determined. The school division will make additional announcements as plans continue to be developed in accordance with health and safety guidelines.

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College admissions deans from multiple schools to offer Virtual College Night May 27th

Virginia high school students who want to learn more about the college admission process and financial aid can attend Virtual College Night for Virginia at 6 p.m. on May 27.

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Virginia high school students who want to learn more about the college admission process and financial aid can attend Virtual College Night for Virginia at 6 p.m. on May 27.

The virtual opportunity is the brainchild of admission deans from the University of Richmond, University of Virginia, Washington and Lee University, and William & Mary. The deans were batting around ideas on how to reach high school students during this time of social distancing. They recognized that many topics are important to potential college students. Rather than provide all of the information individually, they decided to join forces to create the Virtual College Night.

The pilot evening, which will be held via Zoom, will focus on central and south central Virginia. Students who have expressed interest in the four institutions will receive an invitation via email.

If the evening is successful, Virtual College Nights will be scheduled in other regions.

Admission deans will provide information on college search, application review and selection, financial aid, and trends in higher education.

The deans include:

  • Sally Stone Richmond, Washington and Lee University
  • Greg Roberts, University of Virginia
  • Gil Villanueva, University of Richmond
  • Tim Wolfe, William & Mary

They will cover the topics in about 40 minutes followed by a 20 minute Q&A.

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Henrico County Public Schools considering starting school before Labor Day in 2021

The 2020-21 school year is already scheduled to begin the day after Labor Day, which is Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. The proposal would apply to the 2021-2022 school year and going forward.

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In early March, Henrico County Public Schools introduced the idea of a pre-Labor Day start to the 2021-22 school year. That was before the educational landscape shifted with HCPS’ closure to combat the coronavirus pandemic. At its May 14 work session, the Henrico School Board decided to revisit the issue and consider two calendar options for 2021-22 — one with a pre-Labor Day start and another with a more traditional post-Labor Day start.

Members of the public are invited to share their thoughts on the two options by taking a survey, open until June 3 at 8 a.m. The survey is available by going to HCPS’ website, henricoschools.us, and looking under “Hot Topics,” or by going to henricoschools.us/2021-22-calendar-options/.

The two calendar options under consideration for 2021-22 are:

  • Calendar Option A (pre-Labor Day start.) School would begin on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. School would end on Friday, June 3, 2022.
  • Calendar Option B (traditional post-Labor Day start.) School would begin on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. School would end on Friday, June 17, 2022.

At the work session, conducted in a virtual format, the Board also considered a third option, where students would attend school year-round, with intermittent breaks. After discussing the “extended school year” idea, the Board decided to eliminate that option, citing a desire for more research and collaboration with other school divisions in central Virginia.

While the first and last days of school differ, as well as student and staff holidays, all options would include the same number of instructional days.

Possible advantages of a pre-Labor Day start (Option A) include:

  • Provides two additional weeks of instruction before International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement testing, resulting in less time between the completion of testing and the end of the school year.
  • The academic calendar would more closely align with the start of fall extracurricular activities, as well as college and university schedules.
  • Provides at least a four-day break for Labor Day weekend.

Possible advantages of a post-Labor Day start (Option B) include:

  • Maintains traditional HCPS school calendar.
  • Keeps intact the construction schedule for the new J.R. Tucker and Highland Springs high schools and the expansion of Holladay Elementary School (a pre-Labor Day schedule would move up the construction deadline).
  • Maintains the length of the 2021 summer break for students and HCPS staff members (a pre-Labor Day start would require a one-time reduction of summer break).

There are no significant budgetary differences between the two options.

The 2020-21 school year is already scheduled to begin the day after Labor Day, which is Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

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