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NSF funds project to build science lessons centered on coronavirus epidemic

Troy Sadler feature image

A team of researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Missouri-Columbia will build and test a set of high school science lessons focused on the coronavirus epidemic sweeping the nation.

The project, funded by a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will produce lessons that seek to engage students in science concepts involving a topic currently in the news. The project is funded through the NSF’s Rapid Response Research program, which is designed to support urgent research proposals.

Troy Sadler, the Thomas James Distinguished Professor of Experiential Learning at the UNC School of Education and the leader of the one-year project, said his team plans to create a learning module that builds on students’ interest in a hot topic in the news to develop their science knowledge and science literacy.

“It’s essential that science classrooms be spaces in which students can explore complex issues such as the current epidemic of COVID-19,” Sadler said. “We intend to develop materials that help students develop science understandings associated with the issues around this epidemic and how science can be used to inform solutions and personal decisions.”

Other researchers involved in the project include co-principal investigators Patricia Friedrichsen and Laura Zangori of the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The project will create a module that follows a framework Sadler and his team have developed called “Model-Oriented Issue-Based” teaching. The MOIB framework, which the team has used successfully with numerous teachers in Missouri, prioritizes student exploration of scientific phenomena through the practice of scientific modeling within the context of science issues.

“We will study what students understand about the epidemic, what interests them about it, and how they are getting and understanding information,” Sadler said. “The findings will then be used to inform creation of educational resources that teachers can use to teach about the COVID-19 epidemic, and similar epidemics of the future.”

The project will involve nine high school teachers at five Missouri high schools who have developed MOIB modules in previous projects with the researchers. Students in the classrooms will complete questionnaires and participate in focus groups to determine their current knowledge about the epidemic and the new coronavirus that is causing it.

The module created by the project will be aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, which, among other things, urges instruction that involves students in developing their own questions around scientific phenomena, and designing experiments, models and other activities to come up with answers.

The research team plans to rapidly prototype the learning unit in time for it to be used in the classrooms this spring. The team will then study how effectively the new module helped students learn about the epidemic, with plans to refine the module and make it available for other teachers in the fall.