$1.2 million NSF grant helps integrate computational science into high school physics

  • Aug 18, 2017
  • Students, teaching, NSF, grant
  • Faculty & Staff, Research, Physics & Astronomy

The 21st-century scientific world revolves around computation. Yet, teaching students to use a computer to solve, simulate or visualize science problems is glaringly absent from many high school science courses.

MSU researchers

MSU researchers will use a $1.2 million NSF grant to design a professional development program that equips high school science teachers to engage students through computational activities and to study the effects of integrating computation in the classroom.

Four Michigan State University (MSU) scientists, led by physics education researcher Danny Caballero, are setting out to change that. They will use a three-year, $1.2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to integrate computation in science classes across Michigan—specifically, in physics.

“Physics work is impossible without the use of computation, which has been central to understanding many aspects of the physical world—for example, the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson and the 2016 discovery of gravitational waves,” said Caballero, principal investigator (PI) and assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Natural Science.

This NSF grant supports a collaborative project between MSU’s Colleges of Natural Science and Education called Integrating Computation in Science Across Michigan (ICSAM), a research-practice partnership between university researchers, curriculum developers and researchers in physics, and high school physics teachers. The project will act as a catalyst for reframing how high school students are taught physics in mid-Michigan.

“High school physics courses are beginning to emphasize modeling, which helps students develop intertwined conceptual and mathematical descriptions of physical phenomena,” Caballero said. “The practice is similar to the way physicists study various systems, but it is missing one key ingredient of modern science practice—computation. Developing a computational description of a physical phenomenon opens the door to modeling all manner of complex and exciting phenomena.”

The team will design a professional development program to equip high school physics teachers to engage students through computational activities.

“This is an exciting time for science teachers as we help students engage in science practices rather than merely memorize information,” said David Stroupe, assistant professor in the MSU College of Education's Department of Teacher Education, associate director for STEM Teacher Education in the CREATE for STEM Institute and co-PI.

Stroupe’s role in the project is to understand how and why teachers learn to integrate computation into their courses, and to examine how they learn to provide students with opportunities to engage in the complex science practice.

“This grant provides physics teachers with opportunities to integrate computation into their teaching, and to form a community of colleagues who can learn with and from each other about physics instruction,” Stroupe added.

A central aspect of ICSAM is to broaden participation in computation for students from historically marginalized groups, and study how teaching practices can become more equitable.

“It is critically important that every student is afforded fair access to opportunities to participate in the learning process,” said Niral Shah, assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education and co-PI, whose research focuses on equity and implicit bias in STEM education, and how teachers’ instructional practices shape equitable participation.

“We know that inequities persist in STEM education, particularly for girls and children of color,” Shah said. “To address this, we plan to study our partner teachers’ classrooms using an equity-focused classroom observation tool called EQUIP—Equity QUantified In Participation. EQUIP generates data on equity-related patterns in classroom participation, which we will use to support teachers and students in building equitable learning environments.” (Read more about EQUIP at http://edwp.educ.msu.edu/news/2017/app-could-help-make-teaching-more-equitable/.)

The researchers will also study the effects of integrating computation in the classroom.

“A still largely unanswered question in physics education is how computation and physics interact to develop student understanding of complex physics ideas,” said Paul Irving, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and co-PI, whose research emphasizes what student ideas develop out of learning computation and physics together.

“This grant will allow us to explore how exactly computation can be used to scaffold student learning in the classroom while also providing high school students with a more authentic experience of what ‘doing’ physics looks like in the modern world,” Irving said.

Four school districts have already committed to participate in the program—East Lansing Public Schools, Holt Public Schools, Plymouth-Canton Community Schools and Divine Child Academy. The ICSAM team expects 12 teachers per year to participate, and will continue to recruit teachers in mid-Michigan throughout the three-year program.

The results of this research will be transferable to other institutions and could catalyze wider-spread adoption of computational instruction, including evidence-based activities and teaching practices, in high schools across Michigan and the United States.

“Our work begins in physics, but is well-positioned through our partner schools to evolve and

include other science disciplines,” Caballero said. “With computation appearing in the Next Generation Science Standards, our research provides incredible opportunities for strengthening K-12 teacher preparation across the country, and, potentially, bolstering the global competitiveness of U.S. STEM graduates.”