Developing the Conceptual Underpinnings of Evolution in Second and Third Grade

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This project responds to the call of the NRC Report, Taking Science to School (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse (2007) that, "further research and development is needed to identify and elaborate the progressions of learning and instruction that can support student understanding of ... core ideas across the disciplines of science." It takes up this challenge in the context of the design and testing of a learning progression to develop the conceptual underpinnings of evolution at the second and third grade level.


The team will study student advancement on the learning progression in two kinds of sites, reflecting different trade-offs: (a) a project-run summer enrichment program over which the team will have control of cohort assignment and curriculum enactment; and (b) inner city public school classrooms, reflecting greater ecology validity but fewer controls. Both sites are urban schools, with lower SES, predominately minority populations. Both are located in the Bay Area CA. The summer school draws randomly from 2nd & 3rd graders who volunteer from the hosting public school. The school year participants include those in participant teachers' classrooms.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is longitudinal and comparative, and is designed to generate evidence that is descriptive using case study and design research, associative/ correlational using quasi-experimental methods, and causal using experimental methods. The project includes an intervention, which consists of two curriculum modules, one in botany and other in animal behavior, addressing the same conceptual terrain and application thereof in the practices of science. Each module is designed to support student advancement on the learning progression, comprised of increasingly powerful explanations of the fit between organisms and their environment. These modules will capitalize on the curriculum that PI Metz developed in her prior NSF-funded work, scaffolding primary grade children’s scientific inquiry in these domains. Approximately half the children will participate in a sequence of the two modules, enabling within-subject comparison of conceptual accomplishments as they revisit the same ideas in another context and between-subject comparisons of children in the classes who are new to the conceptual terrain and those who have already studied it in another domain (botany or animal behavior). We will make these comparisons for both children across the two summers of the summer school and children participating as 2nd and the in the following school year as third graders.

This project collects original data using assessments of structured interviews, instructionally embedded assessments and videography of instruction. The research team will develop assessment tools that measure student progress on the core of the learning trajectory, including the use of these ideas in predicting, interpretation and explaining biological phenomena, as identified in the concept map. For this purpose, the team will use the approach of the BEAR integrated assessment system (Wilson & Sloan, 2000). This system is based on the idea of measuring developmental trajectories of students as they progress through their education. These developmental trajectories are composed of measurable variables – termed “progress variables”—designed to tap into specific areas where students grow in their sophistication in thinking. This system is ideal for this kind of learning trajectory-based research project. The project will also include instructionally-embedded assessments designed to provide formative feedback for the teachers and, for the researchers, data for analysis of student learning in interaction with different activity structures and the pathway by which children's conceptual understanding develops.

To the methods Wilson & Sloan used to measure students' progression on developmental trajectories (Wilson & Sloan, 2000), we are adding a dimension of dynamic assessment. We are using the learning progression as the theory underlying the construction of hints and developing items that will position us to operationalize the level of explanatory competence achieved and the level of scaffolding provided to attain that level. We are also used embedded case study design (Yin, 2003) to closely analyze the learning of strategically selecting cases, under conditions of the particular interpretations of the curriculum in the different public school classrooms.


Given that the project was just funded in 9/2008, we have no results to report. The interdisciplinary team has been developing the learning progression, in conjunction with the instructional strategies to support this learning progression, & instruments to assess students' progress. We are developing two curriculum modules (one in botany & the other in the study of animals & their behavior), which will first serve as research tools & later in some modified form as replacement curriculum units. These modules will capitalize on the curriculum that PI Metz developed in prior NSF-funded work, scaffolding primary grade children’s scientific inquiry in these domains.

Publications & Presentations: 

Metz, K. E. (in press). Leveraging children's scientific reasoning capacities in science education reform. Phi Delta Kappan.

Metz, K. E. (2011). Disentangling robust developmental constraints from the instructionally mutable: Young children's reasoning about a study of their own design. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 20 (1), 50-110.

Metz, K. E., Sisk-Hilton, S., Berson, E., & Ly, U. (2010). Scaffolding children's understanding of the fit between organisms and their environment in the context of the practices of science. Proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences.

Metz, K E. (2008). Rethinking what is "developmentally appropriate" from a learning progression perspective: The power and the challenge. Review of Science, Mathematics and ICT Education 3 (1), 5-22.

Metz, K. E. (2008). Elementary school teachers as "targets and agents of change": teachers' learning in interaction with reform science curriculum. Science Education, 93 (5), 915-954

Metz, K. E. (2008). Narrowing the gulf between the practices of science and the elementary school classroom. Elementary School Journal, 109 (2) 138-161.

Other Products: 

We expect to generate two replacement units for primary grade science, one in animal behavior and the other in botany, that scaffold increasingly powerful explanations of the fit between organisms and their environment.