The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $3 million grant to Harvard University for a four – year national study of college science students. The goal of the study, to be carried out by the Harvard – Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), is to determine which methods of teaching science in high school best prepare students for college science classes.
Leading this effort will be Philip Sadler, director of the Science Education Department at the Harvard – Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Robert H. Tai of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
A previous study of high school practices for science teaching by Sadler and Tai yielded surprising results that challenged prevailing beliefs. They found that physics students, whose high school classes covered fewer topics, performed better in college physics courses than students who had covered many topics. The students who covered fewer topics may have benefited from the additional time spent focusing on the chosen topics in greater detail.
“Teachers who try to improve students’ conceptual understanding by reducing the number of topics they cover are very excited about our work,” said Sadler. “It shows that more is not always better.”
The goal of this new study is to aid high school science teachers in identifying materials and teaching methods that have the biggest impact on college learning in science. National surveys have shown that more than 95 percent of high school teachers have an explicit emphasis on preparing their students to succeed in college science.
“Teachers hold a wide range of beliefs about the best ways to prepare students for success in college science,” explained Sadler. “Our methods gather evidence that supports or refutes these views.”
For this study, the researchers will examine how well 24,000 college students at 40 schools perform in first – year biology, chemistry, and physics courses. Sadler and Tai plan to examine connections between how students perform in their college science courses and how they were taught in high school science courses.
Ideally, high school students who are better prepared for college science courses will be more likely to take such courses and succeed in them.
The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory form CfA.