Education Faculty Awarded $862,895 by National Science Foundation to Study Small Group Work in High School Science Classes

Martina Nieswandt
Elizabeth McEneaney

AMHERST, Mass. – The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $862,895 to Martina Nieswandt and Elizabeth McEneaney of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s College of Education to analyze, evaluate and compare small group work on inquiry-based tasks and engineering design tasks in high school science classes.

Their three-year research study for the NSF’s Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering (REESE) program and its strand, “STEM Learning in Formal and Informal Settings,” will look at the new Framework for K-12 Science Education that stresses the teaching and learning of scientific and engineering practices in order for students to understand and experience how scientists and engineers work, and how scientific knowledge is produced and engineering solutions are developed.

The study will build on the premise that group work for students in high school science classes will be more productive if it is designed specifically to focus on either scientific inquiry or engineering design. More specifically, Nieswandt and McEneaney will examine how small group work differs when students are engaged in engineering design tasks versus scientific inquiry tasks. In addition, the researchers will look into the different mix of cognitive, social and affective resources that students need individually and collectively in order to more productively learn about engineering design and scientific inquiry.

“The main goals of our project are to investigate whether high school science students demonstrate collective coping strategies during inquiry small group work, under what conditions they can apply them to engineering design tasks, and how the different types of tasks affect the quality of group interaction,” said Nieswandt. “Gauging what social, psychological and cognitive resources students need for inquiry and engineering design activities will strengthen professional development for science teachers about providing better scaffolding for group work.”

Additionally, the study will lead to the development of valid diagnostic tools that will help teachers evaluate students’ varying strengths and weaknesses and use this data to organize students in small groups that are optimal for different types of science learning.