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University of Iowa News Release

Nov. 18, 2005

UI's Hand Nets $1.5 Million NSF Grant For Science Literacy Project

If a biology teacher describes photosynthesis in class and asks students to read a chapter about the phenomenon, the students may understand the term well enough to successfully answer a question about it on a quiz.

But if the teacher asks students to conduct an experiment that allows them to observe the process by which plants convert sunlight into food, to compare the process among plants from different ecosystems and then to write a paper about their experience, the students are more likely to gain a deep comprehension of the subject that will serve them throughout their academic lives.

The problem is that many science teachers don't know how to incorporate successful writing strategies into their classrooms. Now a University of Iowa science education professor wants to help them change that.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Brian Hand a five-year, $1.5 million grant to produce two books and a professional development manual for K-12 teachers as part of a project titled "When Science and Literacy Meet: Creating Support for Teachers Implementing Writing in the Science Classroom." Hand's co-principal investigator on the project is UI alumna Lori Norton-Meier, Ph.D. an assistant professor of language education at Iowa State University.

"Writing has been used in science classrooms for the purpose of knowledge telling rather than as a learning tool," Hand and Norton-Meier wrote in their grant proposal. "The importance of writing to learn strategies in the form of notebooks has been supported and shown to be fruitful in a broad range of classrooms. Current, scientifically based research indicates that students who engage in purposeful writing to learn activities other than notebooks significantly improve their conceptual understandings of science."

Because K-6 teachers face very different challenges than those who teach grades seven to 12, Hand wants to write books that provide guidance and activities that are relevant to their situations.

"Teachers in elementary schools have different concerns and demands on linking science and language skills through the use of writing strategies, to middle and secondary school teachers whose confidence in science content knowledge is much greater than their understanding and use of writing to learn strategies in their classrooms," the pair said.

Heinemann Publishers has agreed to incorporate the books from Hand's project into their series on Science Literacy. Consultation with 60 science teachers and other professionals from Iowa, St. Louis, Mo., and Pittsburgh, Pa., and the development and field testing of the new materials are expected to take four years, with publication of the materials expected some time in 2009.

Hand said this project is a logical follow-up to previous research he's conducted as principal investigator with grants from the NSF and U.S. Department of Education that demonstrate the varying degrees to which science teachers use writing-to-learn strategies in their classrooms.

Ideally, Hand said, teachers will make use of different kinds of writing that allow students to conduct scientific inquiry of their own, as well as to explain in their own words scientific concepts.

For instance, he said, traditional science classrooms use a lab report format that requires students to make a hypothesis, describe the method they will use to study the subject, make observations, describe the results and state some conclusions. But he said that method is borrowed from real scientists who follow that format simply because it's required by professional journals.

The problem for students, Hand said, is that the lab report method doesn't take into account all the debates and arguments surrounding a study subject.

"The goal is to restructure the process so kids have to articulate their thoughts and reasons," he said. "Questions could include "What is my question?" What did I do?" What did I see?" "What can I claim?" "What's my evidence?" "What do others say?" and "How have my ideas changed?"

"This really focuses more on their having to argue from a scientific viewpoint, which calls for critical thinking and reasoning," Hand said. "Kids have to talk, read and write scientifically and clearly. Then, as a vehicle to summarize all their thoughts, we ask them to write a summary using a narrative format and language that is meaningful to different potential audiences: to young kids, parents, even the general public."

Rather than just study an animal, a fifth-grade class may study how that animal fits into its particular ecosystem (i.e. rainforest or arctic tundra), and how animals in different parts of the world fit into their ecosystems. Then the students may be asked to write a textbook explanation about what they learned that is geared toward fourth-grade students.

Hand said his research so far suggests that this approach to science education -- when implemented consistently -- helps improve scores in science on standardized tests. It has also been shown to substantially reduce gender and achievement gaps in science learning, including among low-income students.

Hand holds a Ph.D., a master of applied science degree in science education, and a graduate diploma of education (similar to a teaching license in the United States) from Curtin University in Australia. He also holds a bachelor of science degree from Flinders University in Australia.

Before joining the faculty in the UI College of Education, Hand taught at La Trobe University in Australia and was professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education at Iowa State University. He previously taught science for 11 years in secondary schools.

For the past 14 years, Hand has actively researched science literacy and writing-to-learn strategies. He has received funding from the Australian Research Council, the NSF and both federal and state Departments of Education. He served as a member of the International Reading Association expert panel for standards for middle school literacy coaches and presented at the recent series of national workshops sponsored by NSF/National Science Teachers Association on Science Literacy.

He was co-editor of a special issue of the International Journal of Science Education on Science Literacy (forthcoming) and co-authored Writing and Learning in the Science Classroom (Kluwer, 2005). He has published extensively in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Science Education and the International Journal of Science Education, and he currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching and as a reviewer for Science Education, Instructional Science and the European Journal of Education Psychology.

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