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NSF Grant: Managing Small Groups to Meet Psychological and Social Demands of High School Science

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Activity dates: September 2013 - August 2016

Project Summary:

This collaborative research project funded by National Science Foundation (NSF) analyzes, evaluates and compares small group work on inquiry-based tasks and engineering design tasks in high school science classes. Participating high schools are across from all Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts and include highschools representing communities of different socio-economic backgrounds.

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) stress 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. Crucially, the NGSS conceptualizes these scientific and engineering practices as overlapping but distinct. Knowledge of both domains, it is argued, will help students to become critical consumers of scientific information, to understand the impact of scientists’ and engineers’ work on daily life, and how this work addresses major societal challenges (e.g., treatment of diseases, addressing climate change or generating sufficient and affordable energy). This new focus accompanies a call for more sustained emphasis on inquiry and engineering design activities, particularly as part of a constructivist science curriculum centered on class activities done in small groups. Yet, if the NGSS correctly posits fundamental differences in the professional practices of scientists compared to engineers, it follows that the nature of productive group work in high school science should vary depending on whether the task involves scientific inquiry or engineering design. This research investigates this claim.

At its core, modern scientific research and engineering design work is teamwork: successful interaction among team members that engages probing questioning and creativity. It is most effective when members are deeply engaged cognitively and emotionally in their research. Cognitive, affective and social resources are prerequisites for productive group work. Previous research focused either on single elements of group work in school science and then mostly on needed cognitive resources (e.g., knowledge and skills for cooperative groups), or on the interplay between cognitive and social resources (e.g., science knowledge and interactional patterns), while the affective resource (e.g., motivation, interest) is relatively unexplored in research on effective group work. Drawing from social psychological and organizational theory, this research holistically investigates whether 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. Tracing how individual student resources influence group learning behavior will provide a more analytical perspective rather than the much more typical descriptive approach of most research on small group work in science.

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. Furthermore, results of this research may be used to create valid diagnostic tools i) to evaluate students’ varying strengths and weaknesses and to use these profiles to assemble students in small groups that are optimal for science learning, rather than randomly assigning members to groups or allowing students to choose their own groups; and ii) to efficiently monitor on-going group process, which will guide teachers as they decide how and when to intervene to support groups in differentially structured inquiry-based  and engineering design tasks.