STEM Teaching & Learning

Shifting Science Teaching Toward the Heuristic

As the literacy requirements of the Common Core State Standards seep into education and the voluntary Next Generation Science Standards gain traction in the classroom, an initiative undertaken by an Iowa professor is helping teachers rethink how they teach the subject 15 years later. Brian Hand, a science education professor at the University of Iowa's College of Education, co-developed the Science Writing Heuristic (SWH) approach in 1999 to help students attain understanding during practical work.

Used with elementary and middle school students, as well as older students, this tactic is intended to help them learn how working scientists operate —  by posing questions, gathering data and generating claims based on their evidence and then negotiating with others regarding the merits of their ideas. In other words, scientific ideas are "debated," said Hand, "and everybody has a chance for success." This shifts the study of science topics away from memorization of facts.

A major aspect is to emphasize language —  written and spoken. Students begin by posing questions about the experiment. Then they develop tests and procedures that will help them answer the questions. They take observations, develop "claims" about the results, offer evidence and do reading and discussion. When students are wrong, they gain an understanding about where they might have gone wrong.

The approach has been used in 700 classrooms in Iowa alone, as well as in schools in Washington and other countries, according to Hand.

Kelly Carr, a science teacher in Council Bluffs, IA, is sold. She introduced Science Writing Heuristic to a class at Lewis Central Middle School midway through the year. The new approach "helps students become critical thinkers. Literacy is infused in the approach," she noted in a YouTube video. "I feel they have a deeper understanding of the science concepts now with the SWH approach than before, when it felt a little more like memorization."

Hand believes the technique can make a real difference in helping draw students into the sciences. "It's at this middle school puberty time when kids are making decisions about careers. And if we can get them so they're really comfortable in science and they enjoy science, then I think we've got a good chance to be able to get them the foundation to be confident enough to go into those discipline areas that will then build into STEM careers down the line."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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