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Many modern reform efforts in science education, including those built around the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and A Framework for K-12 Science Education (The Framework), place substantial emphasis on students making sense of the world by constructing and critiquing models and explanations of phenomena. Figuring out why the world is as it is by developing, refining, and using scientific knowledge in classroom communities is much more representative of work in science than merely “knowing stuff”. In addition, “sensemaking” of this type can convey a host of productive messages to students about the utility of evidence-based models as well as the ability of all learners to engage in scientific discourse. In chemistry, sensemaking is complicated by the requirement that students ground their understanding in the behavior of invisible (to the naked eye) particles governed by the principles of quantum mechanics. Many of the ideas intuited from experience lead to scientifically inaccurate conclusions when applied to the strange world of atoms and molecules. For this reason, students require support in developing, organizing, and using their intellectual “toolkit” to connect the interactions of ensembles of atoms and molecules to the world they can see and touch.
Our work will focus on the design, analysis, and refinement of high school and college learning environments that help students explain and model phenomena in terms of atomic/molecular interactions. This program of research is highly interdisciplinary and draws from literature in the learning sciences, science education, cognitive psychology, and discipline-based education research. We are interested in precisely operationalizing learning in terms of what students should know and be able to do with their knowledge. To that end, we will define performances that require students to draw from fundamental ideas to make sense of ever more complex systems, and construct measures that are capable of eliciting evidence of engagement in these performances. By designing curricular activity systems to build to well-defined performances and integrating meaningful measures of learning throughout instruction, we will iteratively refine learning environments in a data-driven manner. Our work is dedicated to the practical goal of improving student learning, and to refining the theoretical commitments upon which chemistry education research could and should be based. Students and postdoctoral fellows in the Stowe group will have occasion to cultivate a variety of skills useful in educational research including: 1) evidence-centered design of assessments, 2) development of interview protocols, 3) analysis of classroom discourse, and 4) design of curricular materials that support students in make molecular-level sense of phenomena.