This project produced and is testing a website with tools to help teachers identify when students’ science learning may be limited by how they construe the underlying causal structure of the concepts. It demonstrates students’ difficulties and a pedagogical approach to help them recast their explanations to align them with the causal structure in the scientifically accepted explanations. The site focuses on middle school with in-depth examples in density and ecosystems.
Understanding the nature of causality is critical to learning a range of science concepts from “everyday science” to the science of complexity. The Understandings of Consequence (UC) Project, funded by NSF, established that students hold default assumptions about the nature of causality that hinder their science learning and that curriculum designed to restructure students’ causal assumptions while learning the science leads to deeper understanding. In this project, the UC team and the Science Media Group (SMG) of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics collaborated in a five-year iterative design process to create interactive, multimedia professional development website. It has tools to guide middle school physics and biology teachers in assessing the structure of their students’ scientific explanations and in using existing curricula and developing their own curriculum to restructure or RECAST students’ understandings to fit with scientifically accepted explanations. It includes a range of formats including: documentary footage of real-life classrooms; interviews with teachers describing challenges and obstacles they faced introducing the curricula, how these were overcome, and, the benefits they obtained from using the materials; comments by students, which demonstrate the wide range of student prior thinking about specific causal forms as embedded in the science concepts; discussion questions, suggested hands-on activities, and short videotaped “content explorations,” examples of student written work and journals; design guides and questions to help teachers understand the features of and how to design RECAST activities, assessments, and assessment rubrics related to causal understanding in science. We are evaluating the site with 60 teachers and are iteratively improving it.