: Participation in MyScience changed primary students’ views of what it means to be ‘doing science’ in the primary classroom: these views exemplified CoP and NOS attributes that underpin, in part, the MyScience initiative
- Aspect (a):
Students learned about the NOS and experienced science as a human endeavour
Alex described learning about a variety of aspects of science ranging from content knowledge around energy, to scientific terms, to details of the scientific process including fair testing and making sense of collected data:
… we learn[ed] a lot about energy and … different terms in science, and … the scientific process, like hypothesizing and finding results, and … lots of things from our results. … I learned … how we can only change one thing, like cows moo softly3 … how to experiment on lots of different things… how to set out our data in graphs and … then work out patterns and… the conclusion...
Amelia identified that she had gained knowledge about ‘the process of the science [sic] … how to actually set it up properly, and do the experiments, and think it all through … how you set all the results up’. Three others made similar comments adding they learned: ‘…writing [up] the scientific investigation … what to do in what order and [to] make sure it’s a fair test’ (April); ‘…you have to be very exact to carry out something accurately’ (Cassius); and ‘… how to work out how to plan it… do my log and… present it in a way that people would be interested’. (Carmen).
Another student—Anne—described her learning resulting from an investigation into the colour of lighting that best supported the growth of shallots:
I now know [more about] photosynthesis … basically how … green light cannot go through a green plant. [We found that] the best [type of light] was actually the green, surprisingly. It was actually the same for both of them … First we thought of theories why it could have been like that … contradicting the photosynthesis … [but] nobody’s done the [sic] plant in particular.
In this anecdote, she shows some understanding of how plants use light energy to grow (‘photosynthesis’), but her comments also indicate awareness of the need for replication in the inquiry process (‘both of them’), the tentative nature of science (‘surprisingly’), that science is collaborative (‘we’) and that science is developmental—building on others’ findings (‘theories … nobody’s done the plant in particular’). This is evidence of NOS 1, science is inquiry based; NOS 2, science is tentative; NOS 3, science is developmental (builds on the findings of others); and NOS 6, science is collaborative (‘we thought of theories’) all of which are aspects of ‘Science as a Human Endeavour’ (SHE) (ACARA 2016)—one of three major strands in the Australian Curriculum: Science. The notion of ‘we’ refers to students (and mentors) working and thinking together to solve issues associated with the investigation and is therefore an example of CoP 2: members who are collaboratively engaged in activities and discussion related to the domain.
Chad, a fourth-timer participant, described how his own
NOS expertise had developed through serial participation [NOS 3] in MyScience
As I went further in age, the experiments became more complex … when I was in Year 3 we did something really basic, [but now] … I’ve learned more about how we can test it and the different subjects that we can go into. (Chad)
His personal observations indicate awareness of increasing sophistication of how to do testing (‘became more complex’, ‘in Year 3 we did something really basic’).
Ben experienced MyScience
four times—the most of all interviewed students at School B—and appeared to have a wider perspective of science compared with other interviewed students, demonstrated through the linking of his MyScience
school-based activities to real-world issues. He explained: ‘One of the most interesting things I found out [through doing MyScience
in Year 3] was that a roller coaster or something, it could break down easily [sic
] on a cold day than a normal type day’. Ben’s year 6 recollection of this event from his first year of participation (in year 3) indicates the profound effect that this realization had on the development of his scientific knowledge and understandings. In another comment, pondering a future topic for investigation in high school, he said:
I was thinking that next year, if I do MyScience, because I heard there’s a rumour that graffiti is removed by deodorant, so I was going to see which deodorant removes … graffiti better, what type of graffiti is removed the easiest, and on what materials. Because, there’s like a lot of people graffiti there in the holidays, so it would be useful for them. (Ben)
What is interesting here is that Ben is concerned with and relates his science skills and knowledge to real life issues. He later added: ‘To be doing MyScience [means] to be doing experiments to find out something that is worth finding out for the human society’. Ben is fulfilling the hope of three of the five school B engineer mentors (Ezra, Emily and Elana) (Forbes and Skamp 2013) who said they wanted to help students understand the link and increase the relevance between ‘school science’ and ‘real-world science’.
These examples demonstrate primary students’ awareness of their increased knowledge of scientific methods, phenomena and principles while interacting with others in MyScience
, that is, through their participation
, and correlate with their mentors’ and teachers’ perceptions of student learning (Forbes and Skamp 2013
). Smith et al. (2000
) similarly reported that student involvement in a ‘community of learners’ resulted in participants demonstrating sophisticated notions of the nature of science.
- Aspect (b):
Students linked their learning to the use of scientific methods and having fun
Students frequently commented on their active (mental) involvement in doing hands-on experiments leading to better understanding. Alex said doing MyScience
is ‘learning and experimenting and pretending to be scientists, and it’s really fun because you learn new things, and you know how things work by experimenting…’. April and Adam made similar responses with Adam also referring to the ‘kind of logics behind the experiment’. Cassius’ excitement when doing his investigation is captured in the following:
In normal school science we just learn stuff, we don’t do much [sic] experiments. But in MyScience we actually get to conduct an experiment and the thrill of … we predicted that the vinegar would melt the ice cube fastest, and we were all ecstatic that [we were correct].
Here, students are linking enjoyment (‘fun’, ‘thrill’, ‘ecstatic’), learning how things work and the process of investigating scientifically with the notion of ‘being a scientist’. Some have also appeared to realize the significance of hands-on activities needing to be minds-on (e.g. Adam’s reference to ‘logics’). These students are exhibiting positive views about science, which was a goal for participating scientist and engineer mentors (see Forbes and Skamp 2013, assertion 4) and has been identified as a critical precedent for students’ behaviour, interest and engagement in science, which, when combined with successful learning experiences tends to lead to an enduring positive commitment towards science (Osborne et al. 2003). Palmer’s (2005) ‘attitude-motivation-learning’ links support the contention that students with positive attitudes are more likely to have the motivation to learn and that once engaged they experience increased agency and development of their science identities (Brown et al. 2005). If the end goal is improved/increased student learning in science, then the starting point is to provide opportunities where students develop positive attitudes towards science.
When comparing MyScience
with normal school science, Adam and Anne commented that they did do hands-on activities in their normal school science but these activities were not minds-on—they lacked the use of scientific practices—a notion also raised by their teacher Angela (see Forbes and Skamp 2014
, assertion 1b).
MyScience gets you more involved and it’s better than just doing normal science … when I did science experiments at my old school it was really hectic … and we didn’t really have a procedure. We just did what we had to and I think I can remember that quite a lot of factors did change and [so] it wasn’t a fair test. (Adam)
Similarly Anne said:
in normal science, even with the bean growing, we didn’t do any graphing …, just water(ed) it. [When growing plants in MyScience] we actually did graphing and we got to find the averages and record the results. So we actually got to know about (and) feel like you’re actually doing some science.
She expanded that normal school science was ‘boring’, adding that in earlier years, ‘we didn’t … actually do the experiment; we just read … the procedure … it wasn’t fun. [In MyScience
] you actually … do it … bring the equipment in and test it, the results and graph it …’. Becky concurred with these views but linked the ‘doing of science’ with fun, which then aided remembering:
…with normal science… we just have to write stuff out and … keep it in your mind but with MyScience it’s much easier to learn because you actually get to do things (and doing things helps you learn more) … because if you’re having fun, you’re more likely to remember it.
Cassius contrasted the ‘recipe approach’ of normal school science with that of MyScience: ‘we just listed what would happen and what’s already known’ compared with ‘we’ve got to do what we don’t know and test it out’ indicating understanding of the purpose of ‘investigating scientifically’.
These vignettes and the earlier examples show that students remember participating in hands-on activities in their ‘normal science classes’ but that through MyScience they have come to recognize that these experiences were not scientific (‘didn’t have a procedure … a lot of factors changed … no data collection …’) or interesting. The resulting disinterest, disengagement and lack of learning when students merely follow recipe style investigations (hands-on but not minds-on) are well noted (Goodrum et al. 2001). Through MyScience, students have learned that scientific inquiry has a procedure where variables are controlled (Adam), that measurements need to be taken, recorded and reported (Anne) and that science can be interesting and it is through using scientific methods (experimenting) that they are able to learn how the world works. There was also recognition by Anne that MyScience provided her with an authentic science experience (‘you actually feel like you’re actually doing some science’). This strongly suggests that students realize that science is inquiry based [NOS 1] and represents partial achievement of one of the main reasons why scientists became MyScience mentors—for students to gain ‘scientific intuition’ (Forbes and Skamp 2013).
When asked what he had got out of doing MyScience, Ben was the only school B student who specifically mentioned science inquiry skills (ACARA 2016) explaining that he had ‘learned how to do experiments a lot better’ and learning that ‘this meant … how to make a test, … which ones would be worth the human society knowing about, and how to display and record results’.
Overall, school B students appeared to place less emphasis on their use of, and the significance of, scientific inquiry skills than school A students. This difference between student cohorts could be due to the type of guidance provided by the mentors (astronomers at school A and engineers at school B), each with their own community of science practices and their own motivations for involvement as mentors. Scientist mentors at school A wished to develop students’ scientific intuition: ‘to seed an interest in, and a love of, science in students’ (Forbes and Skamp 2013, p. 1020), to have science viewed as being ‘inquiry based’ and to give students ‘agency’ to be able to ‘independently ask and answer questions’. Engineer mentors at school B also wanted students to develop an interest in science but their focus appeared to be aimed at helping students ‘to understand the link and increase the relevance between ‘school science’ and ‘real world science’ (Forbes and Skamp 2013, p. 1020). It could be argued that multiple interactions between students and mentors—who have particular ways of thinking, discussing and using science and who have different motivations for their involvement as mentors—results in students who then reflect their mentors’ views. Thus, school A students, who were mentored by practising astronomers, may have encountered more emphasis on the use of scientific methods and so commented more frequently on these aspects.
Another possibility for the difference between the two student cohorts could be related to the number of times that they have experienced MyScience
. As stated earlier, school A students were all first-timers while school B students were old-timers. MyScience
has a focus on scientific inquiry, so for school A students who were new to the program, their recollected experiences may be more likely to be in this area. School B students had experienced MyScience
several times so exposure to, and the more frequent use of scientific inquiry processes, dialogue and discussion may have rendered these activities to be a less memorable topic for discussion during the research interviews. School B students’ recollections of their MyScience
experiences tended to focus on aspects such as content knowledge associated with their topic area, reinforcing this interpretation. Further research is needed to identify the effects of the mentors’ background and repeated experiences of MyScience
on students’ reported responses.
- Aspect (c):
Collaboration with other group members had a number of benefits
MyScience was described as a collaborative enterprise by many students: ‘…working together in a group to find out how something works’ (Alan); ‘… much better than working by yourself … working with other people can actually make the job easier’ (Adam); and you ‘can learn more from each other’ (Carla). Four of the eight school B students indicated that group work provided access to a wider variety of ideas than could be achieved individually and that these ideas could be combined: Blake stated this succinctly as ‘more people means more ideas’, while Bella referred to a sense of safety and a willingness to share and learn from others’ ideas. These comments recognized that science is collaborative [NOS 6] and that CoP members learn from each other, especially when in groups [CoP 1 and 2].
Blake and Bill exemplified additional values of collaborative investigations in MyScience: ‘We have an idea and then we can join … two people have an idea, then we combine them together … to make a big success’ (Blake). Bill described a group interaction that resulted in his group accepting and using his idea to more carefully record their data: ‘… at first we were just going to … estimate (with a protractor) but I came up with the idea of taking a picture, and actually reading properly, zooming in and actually reading it perfect[ly] …’. Here the notions of creativity—combining ideas to develop solutions [NOS 5]—and an awareness of the need to accurately record measurements—that ‘estimating’ is not sufficient, that science is rigorous [NOS 1]—are evidenced in the students’ comments. Coincidentally (and independently), an emphasis on measurement was a strong theme in both Sam’s (a scientist mentor) and Elana’s (an engineer mentor) interview responses (Forbes and Skamp 2013).
Other collaborative benefits were identified. Amanda, Bill and Carla described ‘friendships’ they developed as they worked with others in different groups and learned about each other’s respective strengths and interests. A typical comment was: ‘My friend was good at presenting … and writing … I think she thought I was good at research because I just kept on searching up on the internet … and found loads of information that were good’ (Amanda). Bill indicated that his social relationships had improved as he had come to a better understanding of his own and his colleagues’ science views and strengths while Carla realized two of her friends also had an interest in science. This mutual interest could lead to science gaining a higher status amongst her peer group as suggested by Logan and Skamp (2008). These comments are evidence of CoP 2, namely, ‘members who are collaboratively engaged in activities and discussion related to the domain’.
Several students commented that their own social skills had improved through group interactions, typified through comments such as: ‘when you have a partner it helps you with your social [skills]’ (Bella) and ‘[doing MyScience] has actually helped with my group skills too…’ (Becky) reflecting CoP 3, i.e. what members ‘do’ when they interact. Blake’s views of school science were transformed through working with friends. He ‘hated science’ in year 2, worked alone in year 3 as he was in a group with no friends but in year 4 worked with Ben and ‘started to change that feeling because [I realized] it's fun, because I'm learning a lot of stuff and it's good. We get to choose our own experiments. And now here in Year 5 I'm loving it’. Investigating with friends was also voiced as important for Bella and Brett.
These examples show that interviewed primary students perceived that working with others during science enhanced learning (Alan), reduced workload (Adam), was more enjoyable (Bella, Blake), was more creative (Blake, Bella, Bill) and afforded the development of social skills and understanding of others’ strengths (Amanda, Bella, Brad, Becky, Bill, Carla). Other researchers have reported the beneficial effects of social interactions within primary science classrooms such as Murphy et al. (2012), who found that students enjoyed working with their friends in science, while Smith et al. (2000) found that social interactions widened year 6 students’ exposure to a ‘range of ideas … which often led them to develop more complex views’ (p. 402).
Analysis of students’ interview responses appeared to indicate that school B students made relatively more comments about the benefits of working in a group (collaboratively) than those in schools A and C. Of the 16 comments cited as evidence in aspect c of assertion 1, 11 comments (69%) were from school B, three comments (19%) were from school A and two comments (13%) were from school C. These comparative numbers are notable since all students were asked the same interview questions and therefore participants’ responses will necessarily be linked to their own particular MyScience
experiences. An explanation for this observation may be related to school B’s long-standing, historical relationship with a single source of mentors—company ABC—rather than the varied source of mentors for school C—pre-service and in-service secondary science teachers and secondary science students—resulting in a deeper sense of belonging to the MyScience
CoP by School B mentors compared with school C mentors. This, in turn, may have influenced school B students’ sense of belonging and identity as a productive and valued member of their CoP. Another contributing factor may be that, at the time of the interviews, MyScience
was embedded in school B’s curriculum as a critical aspect of the science program. This ‘two-pronged’ effect may have influenced school B students’ views related to collaboration and group work, compared with students from the other schools. School A was a first-timer school and so the development of their CoP would have been in its infancy.
- Aspect (d):
Participation afforded students a sense of membership in a CoP
The variety of classroom activities going on at the same time was commented on by several students indicating their awareness of what others were doing and of the potential learning opportunities due to the relatedness of the investigations. Amelia said ‘… it’s interesting, because there’s all these activities going on at once, except they all turn out really good, and it all works out … they were all about energy sources’. Here there is a sense of satisfaction of belonging to a community of science practice: ‘there’s other people doing it in the classroom too and it’s … I don’t know how to say it, it’s just cool because, everyone’s doing some experiments’. Ben also viewed himself as part of a community of science practice: ‘If we are doing the experiment, our role is to find results. If we are not then our role is to help other people, and if they have a test to do then do their test for them’.
In contrasting their normal school science with MyScience
, students commented that more learning occurred when different investigations were occurring simultaneously and when group members shared their findings with others.
not everybody’s doing the same thing… you learn from each other and you use it in your own experiment and you share it. … If you just do one topic (as in normal science) … you don’t really learn … you only learn that much. But if other groups do different stuff, you learn everything, ‘cause you share it (Clint).
Similarly, Carla reported how she observed and learned information about other groups’ investigations because of their close proximity while Cassius described the impact of others’ work and ideas on his learning at the School Science Fair; for example, ‘we… saw what other people thought because on their poster they had the hypothesis and why they think [sic] that. So we learnt how other people think, how logical they are …’. The reference to other groups’ hypotheses, ‘and why they think [sic] that’, indicates a high level of NOS awareness and that scientific discussions (hallmarks of a community of science practice) would have been happening during the Science Fair.
These comments provide evidence of students directly recognizing and appreciating that they are part of a larger collective—part of a community of science practice—where everyone is working scientifically on related topics. This is the essence of the nature of a community of practice: ‘groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’ (Wenger-Trayner 2013
, paragraph 1). This ‘hoped for’ perception (that students and teachers see themselves as members of a community of science practice) was raised by scientist mentor Sam. His “expectation that students will develop ‘science intuition’ through participation in MyScience
—through being a contributing member …” (Forbes and Skamp 2013
, p. 1016) appears to have been realized.
- Aspect (e):
Student choice was highly valued and was perceived to enable learning
Many students recognized that when doing MyScience
, they had choice in their area of investigation: ‘we had different groups with different ideas, and we could choose what we were doing’ (Amelia), and in Amanda’s case, this was associated with differences in the role of the teacher:
In the normal science we don’t get to choose what to do, the teachers just give it, the things to us and we just have to follow the instructions and we do it as a whole class instead of in different groups.
Chad added: in normal science, you ‘just… get the information from a textbook or a teacher’, whereas in MyScience, ‘you get to do the work for yourself and see what happens, … It makes you feel like you are doing an experiment on your own’.
Normal science was therefore viewed as teacher-directed with limited opportunities for creativity. Anne commented
[In MyScience] you show you’re creative because there’s no set question that we’re given. You just get to do whatever… you’re interested in, and whatever knowledge you had and whatever you’re going to gain, you can use that to do something creative
and Chad, as indicated above, also valued having choice. When asked how MyScience
had changed for him (over time), Bill identified that having choice about the investigation resulted in ‘good’ experiments and that this was an important factor in gaining experience and enjoying science more. Bill indicated that MyScience
got him to think and encouraged student choice because
of the wide range of possible scientific investigations. He, interestingly, linked the notion of student choice to a baby selecting what they want to eat and is possibly suggesting that choice leads to optimal physical health (for baby) and mental/educational health (for students):
… they give you one topic [the class theme]…(but) they don’t tell you to do one exact thing, so it makes you think of what you want to do, rather than the teacher… It’s kind of like [when] a baby gets a choice of what food they [can] eat, because then they get to pick what they like to… eat … rather than someone just giving them the same food (emphasis added).
Another school B student—Blake—linked his growing affection towards science with being able to choose experiments, while Amanda noted that ‘you can learn from your mistakes’ and part of science is ‘creativity… to try and test stuff out and do mistakes…’.
Several school C students also mentioned the value of making mistakes and that this enhanced their learning. ‘In some other stuff [other school subjects], mistakes … sort of distorts [sic] the whole thing. But in MyScience … it just adds to the information’ (Calum) or as Connor expressed it: ‘sometimes you find that your theory and your statements are correct… And if you don’t get it right, you learn something new’. Here, the notion of a theory underpinning his scientific data and ideas correlates with an earlier comment by Anne (‘we thought of theories why it could have been like that … contradicting the photosynthesis’).
Overall, it is reasonable to infer that these comments from Amelia, Amanda, Anne, Bill, Blake, Chad, Callum and Connor come as a consequence of their participation in MyScience.
The students’ own words identify their learning in science as being linked with student choice (indicated by, e.g. ‘we could choose’, ‘do whatever you want’), independence (e.g. ‘doing an experiment on your own’) and thinking creatively (‘e.g. ‘make it up yourselves’). These students prefer to choose and conduct their own choice of scientific investigation and in doing so they feel more creative [NOS 5] and that they are learning science more effectively due to the associated ownership and autonomy. This corroborates research findings by Hanrahan (1998
), Logan and Skamp (2008
), Olivera (2010), Osborne et al. (2003
) and Tytler and Osborne (2012
), who have all reported the significance of students’ autonomy for science engagement and learning.
- Aspect (f):
MyScience was more stimulating and complicated than normal school work and this enabled learning
Several students, when comparing MyScience with normal school science, indicated that MyScience ‘stimulates your brain to do more… [there are] exciting experiments, so you want to do more’ (Alan); ‘…was more complicated than school work… I enjoyed it more’ and ‘learned a lot more stuff’ (Alex); required you to ‘think of things outside of the box’ (Bella) and ‘think of the instructions’ not just read them (Bill, also supported by Ben). For Brett, in a group known as the ‘NASA boys’ because their investigation was to do with rockets, MyScience meant that he ‘learned stuff that (he) thought were [sic] like impossible… Like, I thought we would never be able to make the rocket’. Despite these challenges, these students, who were normally not engaged with school work (as described by teacher Beth’s comment in authors (p. 10, 2014), experienced enjoyment and had high levels of engagement when doing MyScience.
The notion of MyScience extending ‘beyond what normal classroom stuff goes into’ was independently raised by several teachers but particularly by Angela (see Forbes and Skamp 2014, especially assertion 1(a)) who observed her students using higher order thinking skills. The development of ‘higher order cognitive skills’ has been argued to be a ‘major driving force’ required for the reform of science education (Zoller and Nahum 2012, p. 209).