Making science meaningful for all students

Photo of Helping Students book cover

Today, we would like to share more about the research of one of the faculty members affiliated with CREATE, Dr. Christina Schwarz. Schwarz has been a professor at Michigan State University for almost 20 years and was promoted last summer to Full Professor in the Department of Teacher Education. She’s also collaborated with CREATE for STEM over the last few years. At CREATE, she serves as a key connection point between the institute’s research team and MSU’s College of Education. Schwarz helps find and bring in speakers for CREATE’s Science Seminar Series, and researches and writes grants for projects that span across various departments at MSU.

Schwarz has many research interests within the field of education, but much of her work focuses on elementary science education. She’s passionate about helping beginning elementary teachers engage students in science in a way that’s meaningful to young children. In general, she says, there’s a lack of widely-available resources and knowledge available on teaching preservice science methods. “I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and ask, “What do I teach for elementary science methods?” and “How do I teach elementary science practices?” Through the various grants, projects, and groups that she works on, Schwarz’s research aims to help answer that question.

For Schwarz, teaching science in a way that’s meaningful to children means meeting students where they’re at, finding out what they’re interested in, and helping them figure out things about the world around them—not just following a cookie cutter curriculum that teaches students to recite vocabulary.

“I see science as a part of learning and being,” Schwarz says. “I don’t see it as separate.” By this, Schwarz means that meaningful scientific experiences include things like looking out the window and asking questions about what we see outside—the clouds, the leaves falling, the needles on the pine trees. Little kids ask these questions all the time, she says, but adults tend to forget that this interaction with the world around them is a central part of learning science.

Schwarz’s work brings together this lens with the Next Generation Science Standards. She co-authored a book on the topic called Helping Students Make Sense of the World Using Next Generation Science and Engineering Practices. Her book discusses the many ways in which NGSS is a step forward in making science a more interactive and impactful experience for students, but acknowledges that there’s still room for growth.

One area emphasized in her book is the importance of keeping cultural and equitable factors in mind alongside the standards. Students interact with their worlds in all kinds of ways, and these can vary depending on cultural traditions. Schwarz hopes schools can embrace a broader view of science that makes room for these differences, rather than forcing students into a narrow window of acceptable ways of thinking,

Within elementary science education, Schwarz’s research has an additional focus on modeling and computation, as a way to help students understand and apply scientific concepts to real-world

problems. One of her most recent projects is a grant that she recently worked on along with CREATE. The project focuses on bridging computational thinking with science modeling in urban fifth grade classrooms. She’s also a co-PI on a collaborative NSF-funded project, CT4 EDU, which supports elementary school teachers in bringing computational thinking to their classrooms.

Some of her other projects include working with Head Start on Science to help preschool teachers engage children in science; another is a collaboration with MSU researchers studying how college students learn and make connections between chemistry and biology. One of her personal projects has been the creation of the National Elementary Science Teacher Education Group, a group of elementary educators from across the country that Schwarz started connecting first via email, to foster more conversations and mutual support among science teacher educators. At the heart of all of these projects is a common goal: to help teachers and professors make science more meaningful for students.

When asked what her favorite part of the job is, Schwarz says it’s definitely working with so many great people. Everyone she’s met through teacher education is kind, helpful, and passionate about making the world a better place. And there’s plenty of need for the kind of work she does, especially as teachers nationwide are facing rising pressures, and societal issues are inevitably becoming intertwined with their classrooms. Regardless of external pressure, teachers and students deserve science education to be a meaningful experience, for both parties. And that’s the goal Schwarz is working toward. Her research may not be able to change the whole world, she says, but it can still make it better for people here and there—and what’s more important than that?

-Written by Katherine Stark