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University of Iowa News Release


Nov. 28, 2007

Hand nets $400,000 grant to promote critical thinking in science, literacy

A number of national reports show that U.S. student achievement in the sciences is declining compared to other countries. Also, fewer U.S. students are choosing science-based careers.

Brian Hand, a science education professor in the UI College of Education Department of Teaching and Learning, is working hard to reverse these trends with a three-year, $400,000 grant titled "Helping Iowa Teachers Promote Critical Thinking and Inquiry in Science and Literacy in K-8 Classrooms." Hand's co-principal investigator is Lori Norton-Meier, a UI alumna and assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Iowa State University. The grant began earlier this year and runs through 2009.

Hand and Norton-Meier are working with a group of faculty, administrators and teachers from the UI, Iowa State University and Area Education Association Agency 13 through a partnership made possible with a grant from the Iowa Board of Regents, State of Iowa, and the Iowa Department of Education, which jointly administer Title II grants authorized by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Title II grants are intended to increase the academic achievement of all students by helping schools and school districts ensure that all teachers are highly qualified to teach and to increase the academic achievement of students in mathematics and science by enhancing the content knowledge and teaching skills of classroom teachers. Partnerships between high-need school districts and the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics faculty in institutions of higher education are at the core of Title II improvement efforts.

Hand is one of two professors in the UI College of Education to receive such grants. Cos Fi, an assistant professor of mathematical education, received a grant from the same funding sources to promote Important Mathematics and Powerful Pedagogy. To view a release on his grant and research, visit (

Hand said his grant builds upon work being done with a National Science Foundation (NSF) five-year, $1.5 million grant which he received in 2005 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." Norton-Meier is also the co-principal investigator on that project.

The most recent grant involves working with 30 teachers in the following participating rural Iowa school districts: Anita; Avoca, Hancock, Shelby, and Tennant (AHST); Cass and Massena (C and M); Elk Horn-Kimballton; Freemont-Mills; Pella, Riverside and Walnut.

The project involves nine days of summer in-service activities and three days of in-service activities during the year, as well as ongoing exchanges beyond the formal training. "The teachers are constantly implementing, assessing and being assessed and helped through these changes," Hand said.

Each school district has its own standards based on national standards, and "argument and inquiry are supposed to be prime, central areas of study within science across the K-12 curriculum," Hand added.

Many elementary teachers struggle with how to incorporate writing into science classes, Hand said. This project helps teachers make use of different kinds of writing that will allow students to conduct scientific inquiry of their own, as well as to explain scientific concepts and experiments in their own words.

"We want to encourage students to be more confident and comfortable with science," Hand said. "We're simply asking kids a series of questions."

Writing, Hand added, "helps students articulate questions such as, 'What is my question? What did I see? What did I do? What can I claim? What's my evidence? What do others say? How have my ideas changed?' And so it's essentially much more reflective of what scientists do in the lab."

Hand said participants try to finish off the unit with an alternative writing format. "They may have to write a letter to their parents, or writer a letter to younger kids, or write a newspaper article, or write a brochure about their science experiment," Hand said.

This is especially critical, Hand said, because nationally, U.S. students are not doing as well as their international counterparts when it comes to science education.

"With this grant we hope to develop teaching approaches that can enable all learners to be more actively involved in science," Hand said. "We believe what we're doing here is having a chance to impact improving science education nationally and internationally."

Hand said there is a strong and growing awareness of the concept of science literacy in America.

"I don't think we're behind the eight ball with where we are," Hand said. "I think the University of Iowa is at the forefront."

Hand said this work is especially rewarding because it involves making a real difference in the way science educators across the state are helping students learn.

"We're able to help teachers improve practice and understand and have confidence about teaching science, which is not always the case in elementary school," Hand said. " And from a research perspective, we're learning an enormous amount each year that we're involved in a grant, and we're taking what we understand a lot further in terms of how we're going to help kids improve their scores, how we're going to help teachers change their pedagogy... there's a multitude of questions for which we can only scratch the surface, and that's really intriguing for us to figure out how we can help things move forward."

Ultimately, Hand said he hopes that students will make more connections with science and will be more inclined to choose science-based careers. "That can only benefit the state and the nation if we have more students going into science-based careers," Hand said.

Hand holds a doctorate, 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 16 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, which was published this year, and co-authored "Writing and Learning in the Science Classroom" (Kluwer, 2005). He also recently published a research book with Sense publishing that describes the research associated with the Science Writing Heuristic approach Titled "Science, Inquiry, Argument and Language: A Case for the Science Writing Heuristic," which describes research that has focused on addressing the issue of embedding language practices within science inquiry through the use of the Science Writing Heuristic approach. 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.

Founded in 1872, the University of Iowa College of Education was the nation's first permanent college-level department of education. Since then, the college has gained an international reputation of excellence in programs as diverse as Rehabilitation Counseling, Testing and Measurement, Counseling Psychology, Elementary and Secondary Teacher Education and Higher Education Administration. The College of Education is also home to the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development. For more information, visit

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Brian Hand, UI College of Education Department of Teaching and Learning, 319-335-5590,, Lois J. Gray, University News Services, 319-384-0077,