MU receives National Science Foundation funding for education research

The research will study the impact of QuEST’s professional development program on elementary science learning.

The MU Quality Elementary Science Teaching program recently received a $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, one of the nation’s largest funders of scientific research.

The funding will come from the NSF Discovery Research K-12 program, which promotes the enhancement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in the primary and secondary education system.

The grant money will be spent in researching the impact that QuEST’s professional development workshops have on teacher learning and the learning of their students, project director Deborah Hanuscin said.

QuEST’s professional development program invites elementary teachers to two-week workshops to practice their teaching methods and develop new strategies. In these sessions, the teachers spend the first week learning science and apply their acquired knowledge during the latter half of the workshop by teaching science to real elementary students.

The inclusion of practice teaching is rare among professional development workshops in the education industry. Many others tend to bring in education experts and teachers remain in the roles as students, Hanuscin said.

“One of the issues is that after the teachers go to these workshops, they have to wait until fall to see if they can apply the strategies they have learned to their students,” Hanuscin said. “In driver’s education, you actually get behind the wheel. In a teaching workshop, you should actually get to teach. That’s why we embed a teaching experience in our workshop.”

Hanuscin referred to a 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education study to state that only 39 percent of American elementary teachers feel well-prepared to teach science in their classrooms.

“Providing these teachers adequate training for elementary science education is a national need, a Missouri need and a Columbia need,” Hanuscin said.

Despite the project’s unique practical element, its actual effectiveness in preparing elementary science educators still needs to be proven through the scientific study, said Mark Ehlert, a research evaluator for QuEST.

“Our goal with this research is to determine how the professional development program impacts teacher behavior, teacher learning and, ultimately, student achievement,” he said.

QuEST will begin collecting data from teachers as they take part in summer workshops, Ehlert said. He added the research will ask the participating teachers what they know coming into the program and what they know at the end of their session.

The research — like an experiment — will include several variables, such as whether teachers from a school get to attend the workshop, whether the participating teachers get to practice teach and whether students are taught science by a teacher who participated in QuEST.

This research design has been carefully planned, Ehlert said.

The multi-year grant also opens up the possibility for teachers to come back for more than one year, he said.

Having received 48,622 proposals for research grants with only 11,533 available awards in 2012, NSF’s funding programs are highly competitive.

“I think the main reason why we, out of all of the proposals made to NSF, have actually received the grant is because we have a good research design,” Ehlert said.

If the results of the research provide sufficient evidence to suggest that QuEST makes a positive difference in science education, the program’s training model could be replicated and used on a larger scale, Hanuscin said.

QuEST also offers future educators opportunities to get involved.

Among the staff are two graduate assistants, and the program accepts six undergraduate pre-service teachers to assist with the workshop, she said.

“I like the acronym QuEST because it reflects teachers’ constant quest to enhance their practice,” Hanuscin said. “If learning to teach were simply a matter of me telling you how to do it, wouldn’t every teacher we ever had be a great teacher?”

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