GSE Faculty Advance Excellence in STEM Education

January 18, 2019

The GSE boasts over a dozen scholars dedicated to advancing STEM education in different respects. Associate Professor Dan Battey’s research focuses on the role of race and racial bias in mathematics education. “In my work, race plays a huge role systemically. In terms of school funding, in terms of the quality of education, in terms of teacher expectations and how that leads teachers to give different cognitive demand, in terms of the work students are doing and then what you are limiting based on race, what that limits the student in terms of access to college, access to jobs, and even in terms of how teachers interact with students, the type of instruction they provide based on who they think their students are and their views of those students and how they use those to give students opportunities or take opportunities away,” said Battey.

Battey is also involved in the instruction of pre-service teachers. When addressing potential issues of race, Battey tells them, “think about the resources that students bring with them to K-12 education and find ways in math classrooms to draw on that. So, knowing the child well enough to know what they are interested in, what they actually do on a daily basis and their family culture. The other part is to actually challenge some of their biases around who is mathematically intelligent and who is not mathematically intelligent and the role that instruction plays in how we view that.” Battey often finds that how teachers deal with behavior actually impacts mathematic achievement. “It doesn’t have anything specific to do with the math instruction happening but if you think about removing kids from classrooms or disengaging them by how you treat them it is interesting that you can see those effects.”

Another researcher engaging with mathematics education is Juan Pablo Mejía Ramos. While he also teaches some courses geared for pre-service mathematics teachers, his primary focus is research in mathematics education at the university level. One goal he hopes to achieve through this work is to better understand students’ difficulties learning university mathematics, and eventually be able to design instructional materials and strategies that provide better opportunities for all students to understand this content.

Continuing over 10 years of academic collaboration, Mejía Ramos is currently working alongside GSE Professor Keith Weber on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant aimed at developing proof comprehension measures in university mathematics. Also working on this project is the Rose and Nicholas DeMarzo Chair in Education, Professor Drew Gitomer. Regarding the context and objective of this project, Mejía Ramos explains: “There is this split in the mathematics that you study in the first and second halves of an undergraduate math major. The first half consists of taking courses such as calculus and linear algebra: it is all very computational, in a sense you are mainly learning certain techniques to solve certain types of problems. Then on the second half it becomes much more theoretical. You are now going over the reasons why some of those techniques work, and the underlying mechanisms that make them work. Those types of arguments are called proofs in mathematics, and one of the big questions in undergraduate math education at that level is ‘how do students get to understand and construct their own proofs?’ One of the questions that arises is to what extent are students understanding the proofs that they are reading? Assessing proof comprehension is a big gap in the literature. In this particular grant, we are developing some of these measures.”

Another NSF-funded project being worked on is by Associate Professor Ravit Golan Duncan and Interim Dean Clark Chinn. Their partnership has been active since 2006 when Duncan collaborated with Chinn and another colleague, Rick Duschl. “My contributions were predominantly to the curriculum design efforts of the project, we developed multiple short and long instructional units in biology. My training as a learning scientist and my background in biology were instrumental to these design efforts. As the project developed, and in attaining a second NSF grant, Clark and I continued to collaborate and began to tackle additional aspects of scientific reasoning. Our current focus is on epistemic criteria and reliable processes in scientific inquiry, and in particular supporting student work with evidence,” Duncan explains.

A main focus of those involved in science education and science education research is the introduction of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which acts as a guiding mechanism for how science topics should be taught going forward. “NGSS is fundamentally about figuring out how the natural world operates. Students are expected to develop and argue about evidence-based explanatory models of key phenomena as the central activity in science classrooms. However, the NGSS and corresponding framework (Framework for K-12 Science Education, NRC, 2012) does not specify what students are expected to understand about evidence and how they are supposed to reason about different kinds of evidence, such as simulation or empirical data. This project is expected to yield valuable contributions to both theory and practice (instructional implications) of how to support student reasoning with a variety of evidence types in the science classroom,” Duncan elaborates.

Battey states that his hope for the impact of his work is to get teachers to see students as resources and know that they bring knowledge and experiences that are valuable to classrooms and to challenge the racial biases and how instructors are viewing students, their intelligence, and their mathematics preparation. Mejía Ramos outlines the two goals of their project as getting instructors to use these tests in their own courses so they can get a better sense of what students understand of the proofs that they read, and for researchers to have the chance of evaluating the effectiveness of interventions designed to help students better understand proofs. Duncan says she and Chinn hope to develop basic research knowledge about cognitive challenges involved in coordinating simulation and empirical data and begin to develop instructional materials and support that can help students understand both the power and limitations of simulations and the importance of examining to what extent simulation predictions align with empirical data and what this means in terms of needed revisions to the simulation model.

Mejía Ramos emphasizes that, “as researchers, we should strive to achieve the highest quality that we can to ensure that our research has a significant and lasting impact on the field of education at large. I truly believe that taking the extra time to better design a study, to carefully analyze your data, to improve the reporting of your research (ensuring different sets of people understand it), is all a part of this aspect of improving the quality of your work, and are all things that ultimately will make your research more impactful.”

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